Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Come. Again.

March 20, 2018

The Los Angeles Master Chorale performs Lagrime di San Pietro Photo: Patrick Brown 2018

The Los Angeles Master Chorale is having a moment. They’ve had many before but this past weekend was clearly another. It was the Chorale’s annual Gala and there was feeling of anticipation in the air. Not only over the encore performance of Orlando di Lasso’s Lagrime di San Pietro, which garnered critically ecstatic reviews for the ensemble in 2016, but also because of the coming world tour they will head out for next fall and spring. The LAMC is no stranger to touring, but it has often been in conjunction with other groups like the Los Angeles Philharmonic. But this tour, which will take them to London, Paris, and other points around the globe is a solo, a cappella endeavor that will feature the performance of Lagrime.

And from the looks of things this past weekend, the Chorale is in for even more accolades. Lagrime, with a staging by Peter Sellars and conducted by Artistic Director Grant Gershon, is even stronger and more natural than before. The 75-minute work consists of 20 madrigals and one Latin motet performed in this instance by 21 choristers. The text concerns the stages of grief experienced by St. Peter after his denial of Jesus and the work has an intriguing shifting perspective over the course of its sections. Sellars casts the work as one not only about regret but of forgiveness, with the choristers constantly in motion having memorized the text. It’s vintage Sellars mining the most human aspects of the work by joining them to basic, clearly expressed emotional states and interactions of the performers. The sacred becomes fleshy and earthbound in bodies pleading, reaching and touching. There is an immediacy to it that draws the audience in and never quite lets go. It is undoubtedly a huge challenge for the Chorale who are often operating well outside their comfort zone. The choristers at times sing in prone positions or supine on the floor. All of it looks very natural. But this time around compared to 2016, the piece seemed even more fluid and intense. But it is perhaps the final motet that packs the strongest punch. In this last stanza the voice of the text shifts to that of Jesus himself commenting on Peter’s betrayal and the sinfulness of the world. It’s an angry and accusatory Jesus, but Sellars has placed these words in the voices of two rows of vocalists slowly approaching each other from opposite sides of the stage only to meet in the warmest of embraces at the end. It’s a profound and stirring image of love in the face of betrayal and conflict. Simply put, the LAMC has a new calling card. So watch out world; it’s coming your way.


Parting the Waters

February 12, 2018


The Los Angeles Master Chorale performs Israel in Egypt Photo: Patrick Brown 2018

Like many music organizations, the Los Angeles Master Chorale has increasingly ventured into artistic collaborations with artists in other genre and media in recent years looking for new and compelling way to interact with their audiences. Last year the group presented a staged version of Orlando di Lasso’s Lagrime di San Pietro under the direction of Peter Sellars that received rave reviews and is about to become the ensemble’s calling card around the world. They’ll be taking it on the road all on their own around the country and around the world in their first ever international solo tour. Needless to say, these are exciting times for the LAMC and Kiki and David Gindler Artistic Director Grant Gershon, who also just announced an exciting 2018/2019 season filled with new work to rival their colleagues at the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

However before those events, the Chorale this weekend presented another major collaboration. This time out it was the complete version of Handel’s Israel in Egypt, which was accompanied by a large scale real-time painting and video installation from Kevork Mourad. The pairing couldn’t have been more appropriate as Mourad has often returned to themes of immigration, displacement, and refugees in his work in other contexts, which he did again Sunday night. Handel’s oratorio is similar to his Messiah in that it is primarily written for full chorus with few solo interjections. There are no individual characters per se and much of the dramatic action is described as opposed to acted out. And though the material is somber, the interaction between these artists produced a work of astounding beauty much of the time. Mourad’s process is a fascinating combination of pre-existing animated elements combined with projections of real-time painting he does with ink on paper. The two different image feeds are then mixed and projected together in different combinations in the moment not unlike a DJ might do with audio tracks. The largely monochromatic images clearly contained figurative elements suggesting refugees wandering through evocative unspecified cityscapes that recalled Egypt. But at the same time, ink unfurled on the page like plumes of smoke.

The net effect was profound and the chorus sounded assured. Admittedly the tone was also unrelenting and methodical at times giving the proceedings an unmistakably dire tone that, while appropriate, ran the risk of monotony as the performance went on. Still the quality of the musicianship overcame any of these concerns and the LAMC delivered another winning evening of incredibly moving and reflective music. This intensity is going to serve them well very soon on the road.


A Rush and a Push

November 25, 2017


Hye Jung Lee in Girls of the Golden West Photo: Cory Weaver 2017

John Adams’ latest opera, Girls of the Golden West with a libretto by his frequent collaborator, stage director Peter Sellars, has arrived in San Francisco. Make no mistake, it is a major event. One so demanding it requires time to sink in so that it brought me back to the opera house twice for performances before I could even get a real sense of how to approach it. Now that’s not to say it’s a great opera. It’s certainly not Adams’ best. But that being said, it is not to be ignored. It is filled with enough musical and ideological ambition to launch a thousand other much lesser works. Girls of the Golden West will undoubtedly ruffle many feathers. It is non-narrative and has little in the way of character development. It is neither dramatically urgent nor meditative. It is an opera of ideas – big ideas that rarely make it into opera and for that alone it is commendable. Adams was present at the premiere and was awarded with the San Francisco Opera Medal by the company in recognition of his long association with the company. In his remarks from the stage he noted that he now sees how prescient this opera is in light of the current political climate. Girls of the Golden West is a look inside the poisoned and dark events that are inextricably bound up in Californian and American history but are often excised or removed for the sake of a noble narrative of young men invading and dominating the brutal land of the west.

The manner in which Adams and Sellars go about achieving these goals involves using original source materials including the diaries of one Louise Clappe, a writer and pioneer of 19th-century California who recorded much about life during the Gold Rush. Her characterization in the opera, as Dame Shirley, is one of the three “girls” of the title who also include a Chinese-born prostitute named Ah Sing and a saloon worker by the name of Josefa Segovia. None of the their stories actually intertwine in any meaningful way, although each contributes to the didactic flow of the piece. Against their recasting of commonly misconstrued history is a narrator figure, Clarence, who provides the whitewashed narrative about the golden coast and the hardy, spirited men who immigrated here searching for fortune. Of course, it was a much bloodier affair with lynchings and racial strife not uncommon in other parts of the country at that time. The three women, and some of the men in their lives including the former slave Ned Peters, quickly run up against this blunt reality even in the newfound West. Much of this strife plays out in the dreamlike second Act which harkens to the final act of Nixon in China where the reality of scenario seems to evaporate in service to the larger project in a manner that is both heady and alluring.

But what the show lacks in dramatic tension, it more than makes up for with some of the most stirring music Adams has written. He is plumbing American popular song idioms of the late 19th century with abandon here including direct references ot Stephen Foster and others. The several male courses can often bite and seduce at the same time. The closing aria sung by Julia Bullock regarding the beautiful sunset sky of California descending into night is completely gripping and awe inspiring. Both J’Nai Bridges as Josefa and Davione Tines and Ned Peters deliver arias touching on the searing nature of racial and social injustice that could be sung at any time in American history. Girls of the Golden West can grab you by the throat and will without hesitation. All of this is beautifully held together by conductor Grant Gershon who led the work premiere in his continued ascendency as an important figure in the opera world. This complicated, often shifting score was well served in his hands. So while this new opera may not make everyone happy, it would certainly make them think. And form Adams and Sellars, that is more than enough reason to celebrate.

Love De-Lux

June 25, 2017


Eric Whitacre
What a wonderful end to the Los Angels Master Chorale 16/17 season. The program was almost entirely familiar works, but nothing could have said more about who this group is and where they stand in the musical world. None of the pieces on the program dated to before 1997 and all of them were from composers affiliated with the Chorale – most with strong connections to Los Angeles itself. The occasion was the 20th anniversary of the world premiere of Morten Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna, a piece completed for the Chorale during his tenure as their composer-in-residence and arguably the work that the LAMC is most identified with. That kind of familiarity with a work gives an ensemble like the LAMC a unique perspective and this past week’s performances of these five a cappella motets were rich, warm, and holy as anything you can think of. Lux Aeterna is both profound and welcoming, and Artistic Director Grant Gershon leads the chorale to really penetrating heights with this piece.

The LAMC was wise to use Lux Aeterna as the starting point for programming for the first half of the evening which included works largely commissioned by or for the Chorale with locally affiliated composers, including Billy Childs, Moira Smiley, Shawn Kirchner, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Eric Whitacre. All of the works touched on the same themes of light, gratitude, and time in different ways  representing a great cross-section of musical styles. Perhaps the most pointed and poignant contrast to Lauridsen’s masterpiece was the opening Iri da iri, a setting of the concluding stanza of Dante’s Paradiso, which the choristers of the LAMC commissioned directly from Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Conductor Laureate Esa-Pekka Salonen. It was as haunting now as it was at its 2014 premiere. Salonen’s mystery of the spheres is as equally full of mystery as Lauridsen’s, but where Lux Aeterna is bright and inviting, Iri da iri is dark and foreboding. It’s a universe that is awe-inspiring but may not always be a friendly one even with salvation possible in its vast folds. Perhaps the other breath-taking moment of the night stood immediately half-way in between these works. Eric Whitacre’s I Fall received its West Coast Premiere with the LAMC’s Artist-in-residence conducting his own work. The piece is just a snippet of a larger work Whitacre is developing with his long-time collaborator, poet Charles Anthony Silvestri. In this instance the darkness and light of salvation take a far more personal and immediate turn. Silvestri has set the most personal and cutting of subjects in this excerpt – the moment of his wife’s passing nearly a decade ago from cancer. It’s one of those moments that feels beyond any sort of analysis or reproach given the depth and extreme intimacy of its subject matter. But to be certain, this collaboration was a stunner. A moment where gratitude and loss and failure all meld into one dizzying mix. Whitacre is a choral superstar for a reason, and his masterly work, which slides up and down in tone almost imperceptibly at times was a winning moment. It couldn’t have been a better show for looking back and taking in what’s gone before.


Never Can Say Goodbye

May 24, 2017


Jeffrey Kahane Photo: EF Marton Productions
It couldn’t have been a more fitting ending; though, in fact, it wasn’t really an ending at all. It was actually one of those nights where we sit up and notice the little way the world changes around us. We take that moment to think about what and who we love and respect and take a moment to note it before moving on. The moment was the end of Jeffrey Kahane’s 20-year tenure as Music Director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra in a pair of concerts that closed LACO’s 2016/2017 season. Kahane isn’t really moving on, of course, and will continue to be a fixture in future seasons with the ensemble who named him Conductor Laureate. Nevertheless, he is stepping down from his former position, and LACO continues their search for a new Music Director. There were many lovely commemorations from the musicians, board members, and administrators. What came through most clearly was the deep love and respect these artists all have for one another. Kahane has not only been a superb artist but a noble, moral human being in his time with the orchestra, using his artistry to do more than entertain but also to do what is right and good. He’s demonstrated that keenly in this past season when he’s spoke passionately from the stage about the times weʼre living in as well as in his moving performances of the recent Lift Every Voice Festival.

As for the program this weekend, the tone was perhaps less grand, but certainly no less moving. It was an evening that encapsulated so much of the great things of Kahane’s time with LACO. He began by conducting Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27 from the keyboard. Kahane has made a specialty out of these concertos during his time at LACO, presenting cycles of all of them during his tenure here. It’s clearly some of the most touching moments to his artistic collaborators and it couldn’t have been more warmly received. This segued into the world premiere of a new piece from composer Christopher Cerrone, Will There Be Singing. LACO has been a force for commissioning new music in a town that thrives on new music and it was fitting that this transitional evening was no different from so many of the last 20 years. Cerrone has garnered much attention recently including a Pulizter nomination for his opera Invisible Cities which will see a DVD release this year. Will There Be Singing features waves of tinkling, chiming sound that is left hanging in the air as it slowly degrades before the next wave crashes. Cerrone described the work as being focused on this aural degradation of tones. Despite this dark sounding premise, however, the atmosphere is bright and sparkling in the piece. All of this led to a rousing turn through Schubert’s Symphony No. 9. It was a big week for the Schubert symphonies as the Los Angeles Philharmonic also closed its Schubert symphony cycle on Sunday. But here the feeling was different. LACO and Kahane gave the work a warm, connected, and intimate feeling. The kind you might have with the closest of colleagues and friends. It couldn’t have come at a better time.



March 29, 2017

John Adams

Composer birthday celebrations are an unavoidable trope of concert programming. Even when the composer is a living one, the urge to revisit works in an anniversary is an irresistible temptation for too many arts organizations. But when the composer is John Adams, celebrating his 70th year, and the ensemble is the Los Angeles Master Chorale, objections fade in the wake of some great music performed under optimal circumstances. LAMC Artistic Director Grant Gershon and his vocal artists are no strangers to Adams’ music and have a working relationship reaching back for decades. In fact, later this year Gershon will lead the world premiere of Adams’ latest opera, Girls of the Golden West for San Francisco Opera. So a program honoring Adams last Sunday may be expected but this evening had a decided twist.

The first half of the night was devoted to choruses from Adams’ operas and oratorios. The beauty and complexity of these choruses is perhaps the best kept open secret of Adams’ oeuvre. Not to LAMC listeners, though, who have heard the four profound and richly textured ensembles from The Death of Klinghoffer in prior concerts here. They were again beautifully rendered in new piano transcriptions that Gershon had prepared for Adams’ publisher, which he noted should be out later this year. Joining the Klinghoffer sections were choruses from The Gospel According to the Other Mary, A Flowering Tree, and Doctor Atomic. Perhaps most ecstatic of these performances, though, was the toast chorus from Nixon in China. Close on the heels of the masterful LA Philharmonic performances of this opera last month, this closer for the first part of the evening left no doubt about Adams’ enduring musical legacy regardless of what yet lays ahead.

In the second half of the evening, Gershon and the Chorale diverged from the standard tribute show blueprint by instead presenting a work not composed by Adams but one of his own favorite composers. Starvinsky’s Les Noces was a perfect counterpoint and suggested much about what Adams has built his entire artistic career on. Les Noces continues to sound as bold now as it likely ever has, and the Chorale with soloists Elissa Johnston, Todd Strange, Nicholas Brownlee, and Niké St. Clair emphasized the rhythmic folk music elements of the piece tapping in to the dramatic and narrative elements of the work. Like everything else that night, it was jubilant and fittingly so for the composer who has been a friend to so many here in his native California.

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Starry Night

January 30, 2017


Lauren Michelle as Irina in Lost in the Stars. Photo: Reed Hutchinson
For a second weekend, protests raged across America and for a second weekend the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s serendipitously timed “Left Every Voice” festival promoting peace and reconciliation carried on to its ambitious, poignant conclusion. LACO, in collaboration with UCLA’s CAP program, director Anne Bogart, and members of the SITI Company revived Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s Lost in the Stars for two performances at Royce Hall. The musical has been revived periodically since its 1949 debut on Broadway, but it has never been the most familiar of Weil’s works - which is a shame considering the richness of the score and material. The show is a stage adaptation of Alan Baton’s apartheid era novel Cry, The Beloved Country. It concerns a black Anglican priest who has gone to find his son in the city of Johannesburg only to find he has fallen into a variety of sins including the eventual murder of a white friend of another family from the priest’s village. It’s stirring stuff and the themes are ones dear to Weill’s heart. But the music harkens to other influences including what Weill identified as Zulu tribal music.

The cast of Lost in the Starts Photo: Reed Hutchinson
The story covers a lot of ground even if it does go to predictable places for a contemporary audience. But it was hard not to admire the sheer ambition and effort that all parties had put into the production. Jeffrey Kahane and the LACO players were forceful and gave a real edge to the score. It was a similar approach to their performances of Weill from last week and it provided a counterweight to Bogart’s sometimes slow and often ritualistic staging. The large cast operated in a sparsely decorated space that relied heavily on lighting to evoke its sense of place. Anchoring the cast were two excellent performances from Justin Hopkins as the priest, Steven Kumalo, and Lauren Michelle as Irina, his son’s now pregnant partner. Michelle appeared alone on stage for her big solo numbers but she easily carried those moments that were by far the most riveting of the entire evening.

The eventual reconciliation of the story may seem comparatively easy to an audience facing the current political climate that Sunday night’s was. But it was a message of hope that is sorely needed right now. And LACO should be commended for the ambition of the endeavor, perhaps one of the biggest undertakings the orchestra has made in years.


Hand to God

January 25, 2017

Storm Large. Photo: Laura Dormela
The topic of how the arts should respond to political upheaval has unsurprisingly been in the news again. And given the events of last weekend, how could it not be? But regardless of what the arts can or should do, Los Angeles audiences were reminded this weekend of some of what they already have done for centuries in very pointed and dramatic ways – build community and provide a space to dream of a better world. Take the Los Angeles Master Chorale for instance. The performances of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis this weekend had been scheduled for months and months. But here the large chorus, orchestra and Artistic Director Grant Gershon were playing grand music about the deepest questions mere feet from some of the largest protest crowds this city has ever seen streaming past their doors on Saturday afternoon. And if the challenges humanity presents weren’t enough food for thought, nature itself stepped in on Sunday night challenging everyone in attendance with one of the largest winter storms the region has seen in quite a while. The LAMC and the near capacity crowd responded superbly. Gershon addressed the audience from the stage noting the connection between recent events and Beethoven’s massive final meditation on the nature of the world to come and meeting suffering and tyranny with belief in something better. It was a gutsy and heartfelt performance that focused less on the very good soloists recruited for the evening (including a very welcomed local return of Rod Gilfry) and more on the chorus and ensemble as a whole. Gershon was looking for the universally human in this performance and while polish and finesse sometimes took a back seat, no one could argue with how heartfelt and sincere the evening was.

Meanwhile, across town, The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra found itself in the midst of a major programming initiative for this season concerning similar themes. “Lift Every Voice” is a series of programs designed to encourage understanding and promote peace inspired by the lives of Rabbi Joachim Prinz, Kurt Weill and Martin Luther King, Jr. The concerts and lectures in the series have featured contributions from a number of guest performers including violinist David Hope who was on hand to perform Bruce Adolphe’s Violin Concerto “I Will Not Remain Silent” and arrangements of several Weill songs by Paul Bateman for violin and orchestra. These were paired on Saturday with Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins which were headed by vocalist Storm Large. Weill’s song cycle, like all of his work, bursts with theatricality and Ms. Large has made it her specialty in recent years. She‘s undoubtedly charismatic and versatile enough to make these songs sing with a weariness and trepidation that echo these current times so closely — they have an extra punch right now. The LACO musicians were no less dramatic with their taut performance of the score.

But perhaps the highlight of the evening was Jeffrey Kahane’s own comments from the stage at the start of the evening. He too noted how unexpectedly poignant this programming series had become in the wake of the disastrous scenario our country now faces. By tying in themes from Mozart’s operas he built an argument for these works that remind us of the good we are capable of making together, speaking out, and standing up to tyranny. He touched many in the audience including myself. Better yet is the fact that there are more performances for LACO next weekend when they will bring a staged performance of Weill’s Lost in the Stars to UCLA on Saturday and Sunday in collaboration with SITI Company and director Anne Bogart. It’s a rare opportunity to hear Weill’s late Broadway gem and is a must see for local audiences.


Coming and Going

June 06, 2016

Artist-in-Residence Eric Whitacre conducts the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Photo: Marie Noorbergen & Tao Ruspoli
It was a busy Sunday evening. The Los Angeles Master Chorale performed their final show of the season this weekend, and, though it was an a cappella performance with the full chorale, it was packed with activity. Not to mention some incredibly beautiful music. The variety of selections on the program was no surprise – diversity has always been a staple of the LAMC’s repertory. The evening careened from Allegri’s 17th Century Miserere to an arrangement of Depeche Mode’s Enjoy the Silence. But the real news of the night was all the comings and goings for the ensemble. While Artistic Director Grant Gershon remains at the helm, Sunday marked the end of Associate Conductor Leslie Leighton’s six-year tenure with the ensemble. She choked back tears as she paid tribute to her musical family and then she led them in a thoughtful performance of the late Steven Stucky’s Three New Motets.

This lovely so-long was followed by a hotly anticipated hello in the form of the newly appointed inaugural LAMC Swan Family Artist-in-Residence, Eric Whitacre. Whitacre has cultivated a choir geek rock star persona that at times has cleverly masked his immense talent as a composer and conductor. He led two pieces after the intermission in the evening’s program that said much about what he may bring to the LAMC in coming seasons. First was that arrangement of Depeche Mode’s 1990 hit Enjoy the Silence. He explained the choice as a tribute to his love of pop music from his adolescence and certainly paid tribute to the geek in many of his audience. But the arrangement was much more than a gimmick. His arrangement was skillful and haunting in a way that sincerely added to the source material. Following this was Anders Hillborg’s Mouyayoum, a wordless percolating postmodern piece with dozens and dozens of parts melding in an elaborate aural tapestry. Whitacre has many tricks up his sleeve, and it’s as much an exciting time to be listening to the Chorale now as it ever has been. And if one needed further evidence of that, there wasn’t any need to look any further than the sparse glow of Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna. Gershon and his vocalists know how to fill a room with spirit and they did so over and over again at the end of the season.


Far and Away

May 16, 2016

Matthew Aucoin
The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra wrapped up its orchestral season this weekend with a notable concert that set the stage for a very big season to come. Next fall will mark the start of Music Director Jeffrey Kahane’s 20th and final season with the orchestra and by the sounds of things this weekend, he’s leaving the ensemble in very fine form with promising times ahead. One of those legacies is LACO’s Sound Investment program where patrons contribute directly for newly commissioned works from young composers selected by Kahane. The program’s recipients are a who’s who of young American composers, and the latest work in the series received its premiere this weekend. The composer is Matthew Aucoin whose name is associated with just about every major American classical music organization these days. He’s received commissions from the Lyric Opera of Chicago and The Metropolitan Opera, and he was recently appointed artist-in-residence with the Los Angeles Opera as well as one of the Dudamel conducting fellows with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. (He'll conduct Glass' Akhnaten for LAO in the fall.) Somewhere in there, he found time to compose a fifteen-minute or so, single movement work for LACO, Evidence, that received its world premiere on Saturday under his own direction. The three-sectioned “journey” has interesting moments and promised much greater things. Aucoin clearly has a grasp of operatic scale and the language of the 20th Century musical landscape. This comparatively small chamber work busted at the seems with gestures better suited for a larger scale but any work that leaves you wanting more is a worthwhile one, and the crowd seemed excited with what they’d heard.

But Aucoin wasn’t the only notable guest this weekend, and the highlight of the night belonged to pianist Marc-André Hamelin who performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17 with Kahane and the orchestra. This is an early staple of Mozart’s keyboard works, but Hamelin never does anything in the most conventional way, and this LACO performance was no exception. Hamelin’s cadenzas built subtly and what started out as a little jaunt soon became a roving, wandering beauty. He veered off and away in a grand manner that didn’t come off as jarring or inappropriate but made it clear that this was a beautiful and thoughtful adventure. After the meditative glories of the second movement subsided the third arrived almost as an alarm reminding the audience that we were, in fact, not entirely removed from where we started. It was daring, beautiful playing. Hamelin followed it up with jazz-influenced Gershwin that made sure the point wasn’t lost. It was a bold and surprising performance from one the piano greats of our times. The night ended with Kahane giving a polished rendition of Schumann’s Symphony No. 2. It was a lovely way to end an evening and a penultimate season.


Wade in the Water

March 08, 2016


Artistic Director Grant Gershon conducting the West Coast premeire of Julia Wolfe’s 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning Anthracite Fields at Walt Disney Concert Hall on March 6, 2016. Photo: Patrick Brown

The years just get bigger and bigger for New York’s Bang on a Can collective. Never wanting for recognition, both the composers who founded the group and the magnificent All-Stars, the musicians who make up the group’s performance ensemble have been grabbing larger headlines in recent months even by their prior standards. David Lang popped up behind Chris Rock on this year’s Oscar telecast following his nomination for Best Song from Paolo Sorrentino’s film, Youth. (Though he was denied the common courtesy of having his work performed during the telecast.) Meanwhile his fellow colleague Julia Wolfe has been on a tear of her own recently winning last year’s Pulitzer Prize for music. It was a big and well deserved win for a “downtown” artist (in the parlance of Kyle Gann) and a rare acknowledgment by the judges of compositions by women (she is only the 6th woman to win in the Pulitzer’s history). The prize winning work, Anthracite Fields, received its West Coast premiere Sunday night with the assistance of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, their Artistic Director, Grant Gershon, and the Bang on a Can All-Stars. It was a stunner and probably the best single performance the Walt Disney Concert Hall has hosted this season. And after a weekend full of Gustavo Dudamel’s bloated, ponderous Mahler with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Wolfe and her collaborators provided a much needed aesthetic antidote on just about every level.

Anthracite Fields is an hour long oratorio about coal mining in Eastern Pennsylvania, a region very near where Wolfe herself grew up. It functions on some levels as an oral history of laborers working in these mines and can swing between elegy and a call for social and economic justice. But before diving into Wolfe’s grand choral work on Sunday, the Chorale presented a number of American folk songs from the Sacred Harp collection. More often associated with a raw sound or edge when performed in a more typical community setting, these folk songs were beautifully performed with a restraint lent by the polish of a professional ensemble. It was a smart introduction for what followed, though, in that while Anthracite Fields concerns the lives of coal miners, Wolfe did not tied the piece musically to elements of traditional folk music of the Appalachian region. Instead Wolfe uses a more contemporary language and sound inspired more by late 20th-century minimalism and rock’n’roll. Anthracite Fields unfolds over five movements starting with Foundations, which opens with low rumbling invoking a journey into the depth of the earth. This is soon replaced by the repeated names of injured coal miners, all starting with John followed by monosyllabic surnames, which provides a back drop to imagery of the formation of coal in the earth and what the miners endured to pull it out of the ground. The focus of the work pulls back over subsequent movements, including passages that set the words of labor leader John Lewis, and later builds on a couplet from early 20th-century advertisements for coal-powered trains. The piece concludes with a masterful movement called Appliances. Here the names of injured miners have been replaced with daily living functions we all participate in from turning on lights to calling a friend. All of these activities consume the power these miners have suffered for through their labor. And the final image above this sonic backdrop is of the imagined New York socialite Phoebe Snow traveling by train in the ads of a locomotive company from over a century ago. She arrives with her white dress pristine and unblemished thanks to traveling under the power of coal. This deft and insightful imagery packs a punch and it highlights Wolfe’s ability to deliver a huge amount of material with relatively minimal words.

In just over an hour, the Master Chorale and Bang on a Can All-Stars had taken us out of the ground but we were no longer able to clean the metaphorical coal dust from our own hands. The performance was accompanied with video projections designed by Jeff Sugg consisting mainly of photographs and animation of coal miners and their work environment from the early to mid- 20th century. It worked well without overwhelming the content of the musical performance. The Chorale masterfully wound around the many turns in the score from the soft moaning and whispers that laid the ground work of each movement to the raucous and rhythmic passages when the power of motion of the energy produced in this particularly American history of labor was in full operation.

It was a great night for the Chorale overall and it continued their great work with the Bang on a Can artists. Next up in the collaboration will be the release next year of the Chorale's first recording for Cantaloupe Music featuring David Lang's the national anthems and his own Pulitzer winning the little match girl passion.


Critical Mass

February 02, 2016


Artistic Director Grant Gershon conducts the Los Angeles Master Chorale's performance of the Verdi Requiem featuring guest soloists soprano Amber Wagner; mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung; tenor Issachah Savage; and bass Morris Robinson on Saturday, January 30, 2016, at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Photo: Patrick Brown 2016
It was a weekend of big gestures and major staples this weekend at Walt Disney Concert Hall. While Esa-Pekka Salonen was reminding everyone of what the Los Angeles Philharmonic has been missing for a long time with some clear-headed adult-sounding Mahler, the Los Angeles Master Chorale was doing what they do best delivering a varied and powerful version of Verdi’s Requiem. The piece is a perennial favorite; omnipresent despite the large resources that go into its performance. Opera companies and symphonies trot out this choral masterwork for anniversaries, memorial services and sometimes for absolutely no notable occasion whatsoever. But who needs an excuse with music that so magnificently straddles the world of the sacred and the more profane theatrical realm of opera. It’s a flexible piece with tons of interpretive space within its sturdy frame for conductors to run within, taking off in any number of directions. LAMC Music Director Grant Gershon did just that, having it all with this past weekend’s performances. At times the piece sounded appealingly ecclesiastical. The opening Kyrie was so reverent that the performance seemed out of place outside of a church. But while Gershon milked the stately mass version of the piece, this wasn’t a one note performance. He and the chorale would later turn to the more theatrical and often cited operatic overtones of the piece giving a performance that was equal parts sacred and profane.

It was always thrilling, of course. But the show benefited from some superb soloists who represented a mix of veterans and some very inspiring newcomers. The much loved mezzo Michelle DeYoung joined bass Morris Robinson as the more experienced members of the team and neither disappointed. Soprano Amber Wagner, who has been making a name for herself in high profile Wagner and Strauss parts in Chicago in recent seasons, soared above the assembled forces with real grace and power. But the biggest discovery for me was tenor Issachac Savage. He was unnervingly good – warm, easy and unforced with plenty of power. Easily the most exciting American tenor I’ve heard in years. More of him please, right away. It’s always nice to start the year on a high point and the Los Angeles Master Chorale did just that.


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